Two of Bernard Herrmann’s earliest works for the screen are brought together on this lavish disc from British label Chandos Records. The great composer’s first film score Citizen Kane is presented along with a selection from his fourth, Hangover Square, which itself inspired the composer’s ‘Concerto Macabre’, also included here.
Herrmann would, I think, have been very pleased with this album. He had great respect for British musicians, indeed recording many scores and albums in London during his years living in the city preceding his untimely death in 1975. The brilliant BBC Philharmonic do the honours for Chandos here, as ever under the very trusted baton of Rumon Gamba who has led the ensemble through many a film score re-recording in recent years for the label. Their series label, ‘Chandos Movies’, remains one of the best and most integral on the market and their commitment to the art of film music means that some of the greatest compositions for the screen are being preserved on dazzling digital recordings. Thus far the series has showcased the talents of largely British film composers, and Herrmann joins the likes of Shostakovich and Korngold in their ranks of international names to commit to disc. This is perhaps their most mainstream selection to date, certainly perhaps their most ‘Hollywood’.
First up is a seventeen minute selection of cues from 1944’s Hangover Square, a film which saw Laird Cregar play a tormented composer and concert pianist. His torment of course lay in the fact that, at the drop of a hat (well, perhaps something a little louder) he would find himself committing murder and destruction, while only moments later coming to, as if from a dream, horrified at what he’d done. The murky, snarling and languid score is classic Herrmann, with passages of swirling beauty (as in ‘Fame’) and infectious, rhythmic canker (‘The Murder’). Aside from those moments it’s a largely even tempered affair, with brilliant, quiet bass glissandi underscoring Bone’s terrifying condition. ‘The Bonfire’, though, soon strikes up a furious bassy dissonance, with horns, tremolo strings, furious woodwinds and percussion, as the film’s fiery denouement is brought about. Bone is of course left at the piano, the concert hall burning around him, as he completes his concerto – or indeed Herrmann’s concerto – amongst the flames and the madness.
That concerto, dubbed ‘Concerto Macabre’ is presented on this CD immediately following the score, the piano again performed by Martin Roscoe. Its major elements are of course derivative of the larger film score; the languid, cavorting keyboard playing atop bass strings and bellowing brass. It’s an emotional piece of swirling tenacity in places and is completely evocative of the time. Indeed writing a piano concerto for a film score was very much à la mode, proven by the popularity of Richard Addinsell’s ‘Warsaw Concerto’ from Dangerous Moonlight three years earlier, amongst other Rachmaninovian facsimiles being written for scores around this period.
With that in mind, this was a score and film to take seriously and given the subject matter (itself changed from the original book) it was a perfect opportunity for Herrmann to really create something integral, something that would live on beyond the cinema.
The performances here are outstanding and Herrmann’s concerto is brought to life with tumultuous energy by the BBC Phil and Roscoe on the keys. The score selection is a wonderful bonus, as so little of the score-proper has been heard on CD, let alone in a recording of this quality.
Rounding out the selection, though taking up the majority of it, is Herrmann’s Citizen Kane. I suppose it needs little introduction; it was the composer’s first run at scoring a picture, thus beginning a career that has become legendary. The tones and colours found within this score alone can be seen as the forerunner to many a score that followed, and not just by Bernard Herrmann. This film uncovered just what was possible on celluloid; the use of lighting, depth of field and indeed music were each in their own ways groundbreaking.
The score has appeared on CD in a variety of recordings over the years, some taking in suites and themes (like Herrmann’s own brilliant ‘Welles Raises Kane’ album – recorded at Barking Town Hall), with others presenting a fuller take on the score. Varèse Sarabande’s is perhaps the most complete; Joel McNeely’s wonderful recording with the RSNO pips this particular presentation to the post in terms of length, but only by one minute and thirty three seconds. That said, the Chandos presentation includes a cue entitled ‘Collecting Statues’ which doesn’t appear to be listed amongst the Varèse tracks… There is certainly room for both recordings and it’s the mark of a fine film score that it should be given such treatment again. One of the key differences here is the layout of the tracks themselves as the entire score is presented across just seven, which take in thirty six movements if you will. With that in mind we find the one downside maybe; the tracks are fairly lengthy and so picking out and skipping to a favourite cue is almost impossible.
It is difficult to pick out highlight cues from a wholly brilliant score though. That said, I do love the murkier moments of Citizen Kane, the creeping woodwinds and billowing strings. Then there’s the flagrant ‘Galop’ and the hugely infectious ‘New Hornpipe Polka’, ‘Chronicle Scherzo’ and ‘Bernstein’s Presto’. ‘Salammbô’s Aria’ is another scintillating highlight as ever, with it’s crashing introduction and hair-raising solo – here performed deliciously by Orla Boylan. You can even sing along, as the album sleeve includes the lyrics in English, French and German.
Chandos certainly cover all the bases with their sleeve material; this one is presented in the aforementioned trio of tongues, accompanied by archive photographs of Herrmann and Welles, poster artwork and alike.
Also noteworthy in these releases is the way in which the music is presented. As I said, Kane is showcased in just seven tracks and so the film score is treated as an enlarged symphony of sorts, raising the music itself high above the level of just another soundtrack presentation. Whether this is a way of appealing to those snobs who think film music is really not akin to ‘real’ classical music I don’t know… I like that it is put on a pedestal in this way, besides the aforementioned playback issue, though it may not appeal to listeners who haven’t time for classical music; indeed the Italian musical terminology provided beside each cue title might be seen as faintly unnecessary.
That said, Herrmann longed to be taken seriously as a composer and his film work, while providing him with money and much recognition in the wider world, was often a source of much frustration. He was fond of his first film score though and its treatment here, akin to that of any great classical work, would please him greatly.
Citizen Kane remains an important score, its beauty and resonance still beautiful and resonant almost seventy years after its premiere. Congratulations to Chandos for producing another fine recording, let’s hope this is the first of many Herrmann albums leading up to the composer’s centenary next year.